On Sod Houses and Rammed Earth

It amazes me what you can build a house out of.

Imagine it's the mid to late 1800s thru early 1900s and you've left your home in Europe for a new beginning in Canada. You've purchased a parcel of land on the Prairies which you've never seen. You arrive to start a new life on these open - and  treeless - fields. But wait? How are you supposed to build a home here?

Canadian pioneers were an intelligent bunch, they used what they had – sod!

As late as the early 1900’s, sod houses were a method of constructing homes on the prairies where wood was in limited supply. They were meant to be a temporary solution for both houses and barns.  Constructed through the layering of sod ‘bricks,’ they served as shelter for many new immigrants, until time or the weather caused them to crumble and collapse. Impressively, one of these unique structures still survives today.

Addison House -1929 Courtesy of Lenore McTaggart and Legion Magazine

Addison House is located north of Kindersley, Saskatchewan.  It was built by James Addison around 1909, who was an experienced carpenter when he arrived in Canada from Liverpool. With his knowledge, he was able to build a house that outlasted his neighbours. He decided to taper the walls, and created voids in the layers giving the sod space to crumble in on itself in order to deal with some of the structural limitations sod homes had.

The home is now a historic site, after being continuously occupied until 2006.  To read more about the story of Addison House click Here

Building out of local available materials has always been part of human history. In Canada it occurs in different forms today.

Photograph Courtesy of Clifton Schooley and Associates


Currently, you can build a rammed earth home, which has an even longer history than a sod home, stretching back to ancient China. 

The walls are made from compacting layers of mixed gravel, sand and clay until it is as hard as stone.

Often they have concrete as part of the mix to address our inclement weather. If you're a purist wanting to stay true to the process, check out the English firm Rammed Earth Consulting.

Photograph Courtesy of Clifton Schooley and Associates


This traditional, yet innovative method of constructing a residence has multiple benefits.

They are fire proof, sound resistant and have a high insulation rating which reduces the expenses of heating.

As old as its existence, it is considered a green building technology because it is local, practical and in abundant supply.

Photograph Courtesy of Clifton Schooley and Associates


The walls, which are often left uncovered, are my favorite aspect.

The compaction creates natural wave patterns flowing through the walls. They can left natural or tinted.


Photograph Courtesy of Clifton Schooley and Associates

With a little ingenuity and local soil, who knew you can build a home that is naturally beautiful?

The North American Rammed Earth Builders Association - NAREMBA - is a great site to learn more about this!

Researched and Written by Sarah Coates Masters Student of History, University of Toronto.

Post your comment